The massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania, haunts Australia’s collective memories. With 35 people killed and 23 people wounded, it was the impetus for then Prime Minister John Howard’s gun reforms that saw the Government ban, buyback and destroy more than 700,000 firearms. It was the day we became a country that knows guns are the problem and not the solution. It is a moment etched in our history, and i’m sure most people alive to remember it would be able to tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment the news came over the airwaves. On Sunday 28 April 1996, Australia almost literally stood still.
I vividly remember the moment the first reports came through. Sitting at the computer playing a game while my brother sat attentively at his desk listening to the radio in the hopes that they’d play something from Pearl Jam. Not that I noticed, I was so engrossed in what was happening on the screen that, not even my brother screaming my name in my ear could pull my gaze from that screen. That game was Doom II and at the time it was the most violent thing I’d ever seen. I’m embarrassed to say that I was fixated on the game’s violence, taking glee at the giblets flying across the screen, and the cries of the dying echoed through the speakers. The 1990’s can be defined by bombast across many mediums, and video games were absolutely no different, with games creating buzz on just how visceral their depictions of violence were. It was the way things were, and while parents were worried, we youngsters knew it was just a game. And Doom II was our pinnacle.
It is possibly the most inappropriate yet somehow appropriate game to be playing as the atrocities unfolded, and as the blood splattered on the monitor the news continued to flow as to the severity of events unfolding in the island State. After my brother finally managed to pull my gaze from the screen I sat there, with my brother and eventually the entire family, heads in our hands as commercial radio playlists came to a stop and the hosts turned their attention to hope. Hope that against all odds people caught up in the mess would survive, and in some ways, hope that it was all just a dream.
Eventually I went back to playing Doom II, while the commentary continued, and police gave their updates.
For me that single moment decided my views on violence in video games. That moment clearly defined the difference between simulated violence and real violence – games were games and real life was sadly real life. While that line has become significantly blurred – with developers pushing the limits of depiction of realistic violence in video games- I for the most part see no real connection between violent video games and incidence of violent crime in real life. Even where I have felt less than comfortable in situations where violence is the driving force behind player agency – Borderlands to me was just a game about becoming a better killer – it isn’t because I’ve felt mentally vulnerable or impacted. It’s because there are better ways to engage players and, quite frankly, better gameplay mechanics. I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy violent games, but if that’s the sales pitch, I’ll gladly exercise my right not to play it.
But that doesn’t mean I think other people shouldn’t have that option, nor does it mean that games should go unregulated or unclassified, or that developers shouldn’t strive for other forms of expression. Like the depiction of women in games, we have a long way to go to hit the sort of maturity many of us would like to see from the medium. But for now, while Doom II will forever be associated with the massacre in my mind, at no point did I look at the screen and make a connection to the mass murder on the screen. And that was a comforting thought. But what is even more comforting is that even if there was a connection, people in Australia wouldn’t have the means to act on it. And that’s one connection that can never be disputed.